As much as people wax poetic about grit or depth or any number of factors, there really aren’t a ton of “rules” when it comes to winning a Stanley Cup.
Sure, if you had to guess, you’d assume that a hot goalie is important, yet that’s not always true. Generally, Darcy Kuemper’s best moments with the Colorado Avalanche came before the NHL playoffs (and his scary eye injury). The Pittsburgh Penguins won their first Sidney Crosby-era Stanley Cup during a bumpy postseason for Marc-Andre Fleury, and the Chicago Blackhawks broke their championship curse with Antti Niemi alternating shutouts and shaky performances.
What about entering the playoffs red hot or ice cold? In the grand scheme of things, it’s dangerous to put too much emphasis on how a team finishes, but let’s break down the NHL’s surging and slumping playoff teams.
Hottest NHL teams entering 2023 Stanley Cup playoffs
Considering how far ahead the Bruins were of everyone else, it’s impressive they finished arguably the greatest regular season ever with such gusto. They’re entering their series against the Florida Panthers on an eight-game winning streak, a run that helped them set new NHL records with 65 wins and 135 points. Once a top-heavy team, the Bruins still roll out that premium elite talent, only now they’re stunningly deep at just about every important position. As their record-breaking numbers suggest, they haven’t taken their foot off the gas at all in 2022-23.
Is this what it looks like when Connor McDavid has a good team around him? Edmonton’s the only team hotter than Boston since March 1, going 18-2-1 in its past 21 games. They also finished the regular season on a scorching nine-game run. For all of the justified hype around McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, this team is truly rounding into form, especially after making a massive defensive upgrade in Mattias Ekholm.
That Oilers' winning streak wasn’t enough to nab Edmonton the Pacific Division title and top seed in the Western Conference because Vegas managed to more or less keep pace. They’ve only lost in regulation once since March 19, going 9-1-3 during that span. While it’s better to enjoy special teams success than not, it’s promising for Vegas that it has found ways to win with poor penalty kill numbers (70.8%) and a mediocre power play (18.5%) since March began.
That muttering you heard may be the rest of the West uttering “uh oh” (perhaps with a few stray obscenities thrown in there). After legitimately teetering out of playoff contention altogether, the Avalanche surged to win 16 of their last 19 games, narrowly winning the Central Division in the process. Injuries remain a concern — Gabriel Landeskog won’t be able to return — yet a resurgent Avs team suddenly gives the West more powerhouse clout.
Even though the Minnesota Wild lost a little steam down the stretch, the Central Division title race ended up being a photo finish thanks to the Stars matching the Avalanche stride for stride. Relatively quietly, the Stars won six in a row and eight of their last nine games.
It feels redundant to bang the Jason Robertson drum, yet the numbers are so undeniable. He finished with 46 goals and 109 points this season, tying Matthew Tkachuk for sixth best in the league. Combine Robertson’s world-class top line with improved depth around them — thanks in part to nice trade deadline additions — and much of the defensive strengths from previous seasons, and you have a Stars team that cannot be ignored.
Coldest NHL teams entering the 2023 Stanley Cup playoffs
For what it’s worth, the coldest playoff teams didn’t experience extreme lows on par with the extreme highs of those who were surging. The truest freefalls came down to tanking squads like the Anaheim Ducks, who swiped the best odds at Connor Bedard with a majestic and horrific season-closing 13-game losing streak.
It’s still worth documenting a few teams who were slipping more than climbing.
Lightning-Leafs will torment people making picks with questions about the history they weigh the heaviest. Do you lean on Toronto's perpetual playoff torment and Tampa’s ability to flip the switch, or are you concerned about a slumping Lightning team versus a Leafs unit heading in with four straight wins and a broader upward trend? The Lightning went 9-11-2 in 22 games since March 1, posting the 23rd-ranked points percentage of .455, just slightly ahead of the floundering Philadelphia Flyers and far behind the crisis-mode Penguins.
Instead of a last-minute battle, the top eight of the West was settled a bit early. Things would have been even more anticlimactic if Winnipeg didn’t go through an existential crisis late in the season, most troublingly dropping eight of nine games from Feb. 16 to March 3. Thanks for injecting some drama into the West playoff bubble, Jets, but that’s probably not a best practice going forward.
File the Hurricanes closer to a “wobble” than a faceplant. Still, they finished the regular season with an alarming lack of finish on the scoreboard, and nearly squandered a healthy Metropolitan Division lead.
Some recent history for hot and cold playoff teams
In the last decade or so, the most dramatic examples of teams absolutely scorching into the playoffs involved squads who were fighting for their playoff lives and who made in-season coaching changes.
Memorably, the St. Louis Blues were in big trouble until Craig Berube and Jordan Binnington lit the fuse. The Penguins won a Stanley Cup after turning to Dan Bylsma. A frustrating Los Angeles Kings team went from stuck in quicksand to shooting for the moon after they handed the keys to Darryl Sutter.
This season doesn’t present a direct comparison, as no one made that in-season turnaround and actually made the playoffs. Relatively new coaches, however, are powering some of the biggest surges. After the shock wore off from firing Bruce Cassidy, the Bruins are making history under Jim Montgomery. Cassidy himself is doing well with the Golden Knights, while his replacement, Peter DeBoer, is unlocking greater potential in the once-one-dimensional Stars. In his first full season with the Oilers, Jay Woodcroft deserves more credit as Edmonton is becoming a more nurturing environment for goalies.
Last year’s Avalanche enjoyed a strong overall regular season, but the young team suffered from senioritis late, dropping six of their last seven contests. While repeating as Stanley Cup champs, the Lightning didn’t win their division and didn’t finish either regular season on an absolute roll. Generally, more established teams have sometimes meandered down the stretch once they largely had spots locked down — just not necessarily division titles or a Presidents’ Trophy.
The cooled Jets can look to their own peculiar recent history as a reminder that all bets can be off entering the playoffs. During the COVID-altered 2021 Stanley Cup playoffs, they lost seven of their last 10 games, while the Oilers won seven of their last 10. The Jets swept those Oilers. A round later, the formerly-ice-cold Canadiens swept the Jets on their way to a baffling Stanley Cup Final appearance.
Ultimately, in modern hockey, it’s dangerous to speak in absolutes. Consider finishing a regular season strong as one of those things you’d really like to have, but not an absolute prerequisite to win it all. You’d much rather have an elite top center and a defensive dynamo down the middle, a Norris-caliber defenseman leading a trident of elite blueliners, a goalie standing on his head and a coach smart enough to push all the buttons. If everyone’s firing on all cylinders, then even better.
It’s just foolish to think there’s any single rule to all of this randomness. Instead, embrace the chaos in all of its temperatures.